Witty And Warm: It's Wobegon

Posted: August 01, 1986

There was a time when people asked, Garrison Who? Then he had a hardcover mega-seller, and now nearly everyone has heard of Garrison Keillor. That best seller, Lake Wobegon Days, is about to become the same in paperback (Penguin, $3.95). Lake Wobegon, of course, is a gentle, anecdotal account of small-town life in Minnesota - with all the warmth and wit of Keillor's long-running A Prairie Home Companion radio show on public radio.

It's not a novel, newcomers to Wobegon. And some may find Keillor's genial plotlessness a little - well, wandering. It's best to dip into the book regularly for fortitude and cheer.

For long-time admirers of Keillor, there's more good news: a reissue of Keillor's collection of nifty essays, Happy to Be Here (Penguin, $3.95), which reveals that his genius was always there. Well, at least since 1970, the first copyright date of this fine collection.

For you Rumpole of the Bailey buffs, there's also good news. No, not another grand collection from John Mortimer, but a wonderful discovery: The Shortest Way to Hades by Sarah Cauldwell (Penguin, $3.50). In this witty British thriller, a follow-up to Thus Was Adonis Murdered, a murderously clever crew of legal eagles teams up with an Oxford don-sleuth-snoop to solve the legal and criminal tangle surrounding a family inheritance. The plot bounces from Lincoln's Inn Fields to the Greek Isles and back, resolving itself ingeniously. So what if the resolution is unlikely? It's also greatly entertaining, for which all is forgiven. Among the characters is a charming young lady lawyer, who, having ingested drugs accidentally at a swingers' party, starts reading Jane Austen.

Jim Thompson is about as far from Jane Austen as you can get. The words suspense writer appear on the covers of three new Thompson reissues, which first appeared in the 1950s as paperback originals. If an innocent reader picked up a Jim Thompson expecting sex and violence, he got them - plus the Thompson tour of the Dark Side. After Dark, My Sweet (Black Lizard, $3.95), for instance, is told by William Collins, who is blond, handsome, strong and crazy. He gets involved with a lush named Fay Anderson and a suspicious character called Uncle Bud. The three plan a kidnapping, and you quickly figure that it's going to go bad. The other Thompson titles are Wild Town and A Swell-Looking Babe (Black Lizard, $3.95 each). Thanks, Black Lizard, for rediscovering a true original.

If you're going on vacation, fat is beautiful. Fat as in the 612 pages of Inside, Outside by Herman Wouk (Avon, $4.95). Corporate tax lawyer Israel David Goodkind is hired by the President of the United States as special assistant for cultural and educational liaison. Goodkind is rather sardonic about his boss, who's curious about the book Goodkind is studying. "It's the Talmud, Mr. President." The President is impressed. So begins Goodkind's memoir of his parents' migration from Russia to America, and yet another tale of the Old Country versus the New. It always fascinates.

Hard Money by Michael M. Thomas (Warner, $4.95) consists of only 536 pages, but they do turn swiftly. The President also turns up in this novel, here as antagonist to Xenophon Monstrance (I'm not making this up), founder of GBG television. Seems that X, as he's called, has ideas about what the country should be.

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